“Christian artist” vs. “Artist who happens to be Christian”

May 3, 2009

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Christian Fiction

Our daughter Shelly is an avid reader. You have no idea. We have had to discipline her for reading too much. “If you don’t put the book down, we will take it away!”

Satisfying this appetite is hard work; my wife Kay searches out new authors all the time, and we probably put a strain on our local public library system. The results are hit or miss:

Kay: “So these didn’t work. I guess we can scratch Christian fantasy.”
Shelly: “Is that what was wrong with it!”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Shelly: “They didn’t blow stuff up or anything.”
Kay: “The problem is these authors let their religion interfere with their storytelling.”

There is a fine line between a “Christian artist” and an “artist (who happens to be Christian).” Where is that line? What leads you to use one term or the other when describing someone? Is it just a matter of talent? Perhaps, but aren’t there examples of good and bad art in both categories?

Is it more a matter of intent of what the art expresses? That’s also a bit slippery, because the phrase “happens to be a Christian” almost makes it sound like the artist’s faith is peripheral to them, which is not at all what I mean. Perhaps I am drawing the wrong dichotomy in the first place.

I don’t quite know how to put this, but does the difference lie in a deeper attitude toward art itself: Are they willing to take risks?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

19 responses to “Christian artist” vs. “Artist who happens to be Christian”

  1. I use to have this problem big time when I did my “Christian” radio show in college. Everyone was more or less lumped into Christian music or Christian musicians. I was trying to expose both kinds to a wider audience. Christian music is typically worship (think lyrics) oriented rather than technical. Most of your standard worship music isn’t suited for college radio. Most of my show was oriented toward musicians who happened to be Christians because of this. However, where the Christian music really took off was gospel and more alternative highly technical or unusual pieces. The good stuff was good music that happened to have Christian lyrics or themes, but first it must be good music.

  2. Incidentally, Anne Rice has a trilogy (2 of the 3 are out now) regarding Jesus. Now that she is a Christian I think she would make some good fiction that is Christian themed.

  3. Personally, I avoid the “Christian fiction” section of the bookstore like the plague, but then I don’t read much fiction. Your post reminded me of something I read the other day that seems right in line with what you’re getting at: http://emergentself.blogspot.com/2009/05/recently-i-listened-to-speaker-whose.html

  4. Jason, I think you’re hitting something with “first it must be good music.” Maybe the problem with the light & fluffy Christian artists is that they don’t focus enough on art, being exposed to others in and out of their medium, learning from anyone who is good regardless of their faith or lack thereof.
    And thanks for the Anne Rice pointer!

  5. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I think for a long time, people thought that if you were a Christian, you had to write about Christian things, sing only Christian songs and not be in the real world. Yuck.
    I’m looking for good music, good writing…if the person happens to be a Christian or the music is Christian-based, great…but I’ve never been someone who listens to only Christian music or reads only Christian writings. Wow. There would be so many good things I’d miss out on!!
    Don’t get me wrong, I listen to a number of Christian artists that I think are awesome, but they are just part of my musical library.

  6. Maria,
    Heh, if you don’t read much fiction, I would definitely steer clear of the “Christian fiction” section. If there’s anything worthy, you’ll hear about it, right?
    And thanks for that link! I was most struck by: “The makers of those movies are not interested in film as an art form. They simply wanted a vehicle for presenting a Christian message.”

  7. Carrie, if you & I find it annoying, what could it possibly mean to normal people?
    Check out the link from Maria; there are good thoughts there on “being in the real world.”

  8. I am reminded of an exchange student from Germany who visited with our college-age Christian group some years ago. She was annoyed that we only listened to Christian music all the time: “Don’t you ever listen to normal music??” But at that time, we didn’t.
    As far as fiction goes, I am an avid reader as well, and if the writing isn’t good, if it doesn’t ring true for me, I will put the book down. I don’t care if it’s Christian or not. I can’t stand false-sounding writing, or contrived plots. I think “a vehicle for presenting a Christian message” and not respecting the art form, is exactly the problem.

  9. The Misfit Toy May 5, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    I think a lot of “Christian Art” is really an art of wishing. Wishing that that stories we tell were truer than they are. So in Christian Art, praying and reading the bible really does help me find the perfect mate, or save the world from evil.
    I think what distinguishes a “Christian Artist” and an artist who is a follower of Jesus is how they deal with the tension between the world you wish for and the world we live in.
    The Christian Artist tries to make the wishes come true by painting the wish as beautifully as they can. Thomas Kincade and the little cabin glowing in the valley.
    For some, this is comforting and beautiful. It helps them continue to live in hope.
    For some, it seems like a half-life, plastic and phony, and it drives us crazy, ur makes us walk away shaking our heads.
    I think, however, that in some ways, it signifies it as good art. Because it forces you to decide which world you want to live in, and to ask yourself what you need to live better.

  10. I wish I could write something that was less christian at times, knowing it would appeal to a wider audience, but what burns in my heart is all about God. I tend to think there are Christian musicians who are not purposely in “ministry” and those who are. Both have a call and purpose, but I see it as the difference between a pastor and a christian contractor.Praise God for the Christian musicians and writers who are able to share thier art in this desperatley needy world!

  11. Sami,
    It’s kind of funny, because back in the early days of CCM, there wasn’t enough of it to make an “industry” so I think Christians listened to a greater variety of normal music.
    You’re right to point out that Christians don’t have a market on “false-sounding writing.” But I think they often lean into it because writing (and any art) is seen as a means to an end rather than something with worth in itself.

  12. Mr. Toy,
    Wow, so is art in the beholder’s interaction with the piece (whatever it is)? Are we all called to be Life Artists? (I write it and it sounds so bohemian-cool-what-the-heck-is-he-talking-about.)

  13. i showed the worship star video to the youth worship team i mentor and we had a lengthy discussion on this very subject. some of them weren’t sure what the difference was between a worship band and a christian band. there was also some discussion about bands that start off unable to write a song without mentioning God, then have later albums that don’t mention God at all. we wondered if it was out of honesty or commercial pursuits that these transitions are made.
    i wonder if groups that exclusively sing about God on record have piles of discarded love songs under their mattresses. that leads me to a litmus test: if your art mentions God about as much as you mention God in conversation, you’re an artist who’s a christian. if you only create art that mentions God, you’re a christian artist, and your art probably sucks, hahaha
    christian music and gangsta rap are the only genres of music that are defined by the message and not the sound. …what is it about those two messages that make people want to put a box around them?

  14. Starr,
    I think the differences I am touching on have less to do with the spiritual content and more to do with artistic honesty. Take — oh, shoot, what’s his name — the famous untrained folk artist who uses drawing and lettering to make what I consider prophetic art. His work is extremely God-focused, yet he is acclaimed the world over, and darn it I can’t think of his name. …Anyone?
    I guess I see little difference between being a pastor and being a construction contractor. God calls people to both, and the important thing to me is recognizing and obeying that calling, to be ministers and missionaries regardless of job title.
    So if you have something that burns in your heart, run with it! Ultimately, an artist creates for himself and not for any audience. As Anna Nalick sings in the song “Breathe (2 AM)”:
    2 AM and I’m still awake, writing a song
    If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me,
    Threatening the life it belongs to

  15. i read a blog some time ago by andrew osenga (who is probably most famous for being a member of caedmon’s call) where he talked about the pressure to produce songs that are upbeat and less raw. in fact, he said writing “christian” music just because it will sell is like taking the lord’s name in vain. that has really stuck with me because i think it is really easy to see christians as just another market to tap into, musician or not.
    in my opinion, truly moving art comes from a place of honesty and creativity for creativity’s sake. i just saw a roundtable discussion about preaching and one of the speakers said that one needs to preach out of their own passion of what they read in the bible. if i’m writing because i need to have something to say on sunday, it is very different than if i’m writing because i can’t believe what i’m learning and have to share it with someone. i think this principle applies whether i am a musician, painter, dancer, or any other type of artist.
    another thought that comes to me when i think about christian fiction and music…perhaps the problem is that many people don’t have a mastery over what makes something christian. instead of works full of redemption, sacrifice, truth, and beauty, “christian” works take out the things that are “bad” (pain, explosions, premarital sex) and leave the rest as is. what’s left is a hollow shell of art.

  16. nstryker, sounds like it was a fruitful discussion! I like your litmus test, but have you ever been around people whose talk is nothing but God this and the Bible that? I want to shake them and say, “Have you ever lived? Fallen in love? Out of love?” Much of the problem, I think, comes from dividing the world into “secular” vs. “sacred” and not seeing God’s presence in all things.

  17. Frances,
    Love your thoughts. Three doozies for the price of one! 🙂

  18. That’s a tough one. I think it is true that is a great deal of cheesy crap that called Christian fiction. And I do think a LOT of it would never get published if it had to compete with other stuff in the secular market. But then again, there’s a LOT of crap in the secular market too.
    And frankly, for me it’s kind of what’s wrong with the whole sacred vs. secular dualism thing. Iow, if a work of art honors God…it honors God. And I think each work should better be judged individually.
    Having said that, there’s is a fair amount of this fiction that sets out to make a point…like evangelism or something. And I just think that does tend to stand in the way of producing good fiction.
    But as I think of it also, I don’t think that Christians should be afraid to share their faith in fictional works. They should have the freedom to explore as true artists…made in the image of the Greatest Artist. Stephen Lawhead is a good example of a writer is actually very gifted in writing fiction that is from a strong Christian perspective though not contrived or necessarily preachy. I have a few friends, for example, who aren’t believers that I have recommended his latest series (King Raven…Robin Hood!) and they have become fans! But in the series, Lawhead doesn’t hold back his faith from the characters in the book. And in fact, there is a Christian Druid in the book (as there are in other works). Edgy! Another book I’m reading is speculative Christian science fiction by a new author with the last name of Stockton that is quite good fiction so far! His story is a world that is not Earth, the main character is essentially a sentient, machine using dinosaur (the whole planet is full of sentient saurians of a dizzying variety of species). The book is called Star Fire. It’s wild and imaginative and really, really good. And the book was published by an indie Christian publisher (Jeff Gerke). I met Jeff for lunch when I visited Colorado Springs during Christmas time. He was a really cool guy who left a major Christian publisher and start his own company he said, because of all the crap they would publish. He says that he started the company so that books like Star Fire could get a chance to be published.

  19. Rich, I vividly remember taking Science Fiction Lit in high school and the teacher beginning, “90% of science fiction is crap. But then, 90% of everything is crap.” I think a problem with Christian art is that there is a big market for crap, because people want to be reassured and kept safe, not disturbed and challenged.
    You hit a big one with the “sacred vs. secular dualism.” Big, as in huge.
    Hmm, noting Lawhead on my list of “books to read to the kids.” And I’m glad to hear about authors escaping the Christian marketing machine!